Knowledge crosses borders, and if carried by a true leader, it can reach even the smallest communities on the other side of the globe. Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Yabela Dlali, is the founder and CEO of YDT Group, a financial company that provides financial advice, insurance services, property development, and e-bonds for the public. The company’s vision is to leverage its knowledge to create and promote a debt-free society for South African citizens and beyond.
Yabela is one of the 25 young leaders who journeyed to Austin to take part in the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The fellowship is a component of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) which is sponsored by the US State Department.
The goal of the fellowship is to empower young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking. Participants take part in a six-week long academic and leadership program at US universities. When the fellows return home, they will continue to build their skills and have access to resources through various US development agencies.
Why did you start YDT Group?
I started my company to help people because in the insurance industry you are measured not by how many people you help but how much you sell. I wanted to run a brokerage firm where people receive objective advice and not walk out of my office with only a product. This idea was how YDT Group started but over time the company expanded and now it is five different groups providing different services all under the YDT name.
How has your company changed and grown since it was founded?
When I started, I ran the company out of one room of my apartment. Now the company occupies three floors of a commercial building that we own. YDT started with just me but now we have 17 employees and are expanding.
What started your interests in business and finance?
What started my interest was that my parents declared bankruptcy and they couldn’t pay for my university. I dropped out and started looking for a job. I only had 10 rands (about 75 cents) and I bought a newspaper where I found a job in finance. When I began this job, I didn’t even know what finance was but over time I fell in love with it and have been in the industry ever since.
What type of impact has YDT Group had in Bloemfontein and South Africa?
In the public arena, I have been invited along with some of my employees into many radio stations to give advice about finance. Some of these stations have a listenership of the entire country and reach between 2.5 to 3 million people. In one of the programs, which ran for 18 months, I gave advice about property matters live on air. I even gave advice outside of my mother tongue because I speak 9 out of the 11 national languages of South Africa.I have even written financial articles for international newspapers. One of these newspapers was Public Eye which has a readership of people from South Africa and Lesotho. All of this advice was done pro bono.
In the private arena, I have helped my local church with the activities they do for underprivileged kids. All of my employees help with my church’s initiative and volunteer at least one day out of the three-day event. YDT also partners with Junior Chamber International (JCI). We support JCI financially and work with them to make a difference in our community.
Where do you see YDT Group expanding and growing in the next decade?
My mind is running wild because that question gets me excited. In the next decade, I want YDT to do business and invest in Austin. I also want to provide my company’s services for Austinites.
In South Africa, we are in the process of rolling out a new franchise model with one of the largest insurance companies in the country. Already we have branches in Bloemfontein, Cape Town, and East London but we will expand to more cities in and outside of the country. In the next decade, I see at least 20-25 branches and at least five international offices.
How has it been to be with fellow young African leaders here in Austin?
Except for one event, I have never been in a room to meet so many fellow African leaders where I can network and exchange knowledge with them. Coming here has opened up my mind to new possibilities. I am already going to start new business ventures with some of my Mandela Washington Fellows. The program has made me realize that I am not alone in believing in the African Dream. I now know that there are other young Africans who have the same vision all across the continent.
"The program has made me realize that I am not alone in believing in the African Dream."
What has been your most interesting or eye-opening experience during the Mandela Washington Fellowship?
After coming here, I realize a couple of things. I was running a multi-million-rand business with a convenient store model. Where the system for sustaining, evaluating, and expanding was not fully in place. While studying at McCombs, I saw the system I needed to put into place so I can improve the success of my business.
On the personal development side, Dr. Charlee Garden gave me an opportunity to see my management and leadership style. She helped me understand my leadership method and how I can improve my management style to be more effective at my business.
What leaders have you met here in Austin?
Every person I have met here is an expert in their own way and these leaders are at the top of their game. Some of these leaders are my professors at the business school: John Doggett, Charlee Garden, and so many others. My peer collaborator, John Ellison, is another leader here in Austin. Everything and everyone here has been great.
What business skills have you learned during the program?
Back in South Africa, I thought I had a method in which I would make my schedule and plan before work. After watching Texas Global organize and arrange events, I learned a whole new ballgame with making schedules.
After having classes at McCombs, I learned how to evaluate my business and see its effectiveness. Charlee Garden also taught me how to manage my employees and to foster a fun and creative environment while still being accountable.
What ideas, projects, or techniques will you take back with you to South Africa?
One idea I want to use for my business came from a case study. The case study was about a company recycling and using e-waste to create new computers.
My idea is to reduce the waste of the construction side of YDT. Right now, after building there is a lot of rubble that is thrown away. I want to collect this rubble from my company and charge a service fee for collecting from other companies. Then we would recycle, repurpose, and fabricate materials for new construction sites while meeting the standards of the regulators.
What has been your favorite experience here in Austin?
Every activity has been great but the last event was the best. We went to the Silver Spur Guest Ranch which is a dude ranch. Before the dude ranch, all of us went to San Antonio for a day trip. While in San Antonio, I bought a cowboy hat, boots, and a bolo tie to prepare for the dude ranch. At the ranch, I was able to experience horseback riding and have full control of the horse without help. I really enjoyed this experience.
"Without this program, I wouldn’t have been able to see Africa’s potential and what it can be."
Why do you think it is important for programs like the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders to exist?
From this program, I learned about my impact on my community. Before I didn’t know a lot about African leaders who are making a difference in their country. Without this program, I wouldn’t have been able to see Africa’s potential and what it can be. I now see Africa’s future. It is important for this program to continue and if I could speak to the current President, I would plea with him to continue the Mandela Washington Fellowship for as long as possible.
Since 2014, The University of Texas at Austin has hosted the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (MWF-YAL), the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
Interview by William Frankel
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.